Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Biblical" Counseling

What is Biblical Counseling?

It was the sort of title that jumps right out at you, if you're a pastor flipping through a magazine where you generally don't encounter faithy stuff.  The magazine in question was Pacific Standard, a fascinatingly readable bi-monthly mag I was gifted a while back.  It's equal parts science and whimsy, and seems more interested in finding the interesting and unusual than riding the tides of cultural faddishness.  

Pacific Standard is a quality read, and it also takes pretty much no advertising, which is at first startling, and then refreshing.  Page after page of well-written and researched articles, and no shiny ads?  Lord, I could get used to that.

The article--which appears in the September/October edition--explores the Biblical or "nouthetic" counseling movement, which arose out of conservative Presbyterian circles in the late 20th century as a reaction to more overtly secular forms of psychotherapy.

The idea?  Push back against the concept that pastors are not equipped to counsel, and that "counseling" is something best left to clinically--and secularly--trained professionals.  Best to get back to the core principles of faith, argued the pastors who presented this concept, and to use them as they were meant to be used--to heal.

Scripture is sufficient, or so goes the mantra of the movement.

On some levels, I get this.  Given that the Greek word used in the Bible for "soul" is psyche, the idea that pastors are out of their depth when it comes to souls is a little troubling.  I got this line repeatedly in some of my counseling coursework, and it always bugged me a bit.  For some reason.

The article itself is remarkably balanced in the way that the Pacific Standard always is.  It presents some of the flaws and overreach of this movement, sure, particularly in the tendency of some practitioners to avoid or dismiss helpful clinical interventions.  Some practitioners are also less helpful than others, as they focus on "curing" homosexuality and insufficiently obedient wives.

But it also notes that it *works* a surprisingly large percentage of the time, with a success rate essentially identical to other secular methodologies.  It notes that many of the practitioners and leaders in the movement do not rule out working in tandem with medical science, and that they're motivated by a genuine desire to care for others.

It's talk-based and semi-directive therapy, after all, just grounded in a particular corner of a faith tradition.

What I wondered, though, was at the foundational assumption of Biblical counseling: that what mattered was that it be "biblical."  

I could see rooting a counseling method in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Personal transformation towards a self aligned with God's most gracious purpose?  That was at the heart of what he taught.  When I talk to people about things that are troubling them, I'd hope that's what I'm doing.  It's certainly what I'm trying to do.

But "biblical" can mean so many different things. The Bible, as one discovers when one spends a lifetime studying it, does not have a single voice.  That's what makes our canon so rich, and so real, and such a deep source of wisdom.  And there is so very much powerful, life transforming truth woven into it.

But seen through the wrong eyes, very "biblical" things can be damaging.  The Bible can be made into an excuse to justify ancient biases, against women, against other nations or peoples, against those who are differently wrought.

"Christ-centered," perhaps.  "Spirit-led," maybe.  "Oriented towards the Reign of God Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived out and was willing to die for?"  Well, that's a bit too wordy, but conveys the idea.  And sure, you get that from the Bible.  But there's scripture, and there's Scripture.

That a thing is "Biblical" does not, of itself, convey authority or even any coherent sense of direction.